Are TfL about to ditch new route 497?

Sunday 3rd October 2021

I wrote about TfL’s new route 497 on its first day of operation back on 25th January 2020.

Here’s a quick recap: the 497 links Harold Wood station with new housing in Kings Park (the former Harold Wood Hospital site) passing a Polyclinic and London South Bank University’s Havering Campus as well as a giant Tesco Extra (at Gallows Corner) and gives a few previously unserved roads, including Chatteris Avenue, a bus for the first time. Two buses provide a half hourly timetable (hourly on Sundays) with an end-to-end journey time of just 18 minutes with the last stop at Gooshays Drive Harold Hill close to the Central Leisure Centre but buses continue out of service for a further mile to an established terminus at Dagnam Park Square to wait out the 24 minutes stand time (albeit less the ten minutes allocated for the dead travel time there and back) before returning on the next trip.

You might also remember in true TfL style route 497 was over three years in the making. It was first talked about in TfL’s September 2016 ‘Review of bus services in Harold Hill’ report identifying gaps in the desired ‘housing within 400 metres of a bus stop’ criteria in the Borough of Havering particularly the 863 new homes being built at Kings Park.

A Section 106 agreement involving a payment of £513,873 facilitating access for buses through the development site dates back even further to 2011. The only trouble was it took the developer less time to build the 863 new houses than it did for TfL to introduce route 497 so unsurprisingly most residents had made alternative travel arrangements on moving in well before the buses arrived and have therefore largely eschewed the bus. The pandemic hasn’t helped either with lockdown coming two months after route 497 began operating.

Total weekday passengers for the first year of operation on route 497

In those pre Covid first few weeks after introduction in early 2020 weekday passenger numbers reached 1,134 journeys by the first week of March 2020, which is about 3 to 4 passengers per journey. It wasn’t exactly packing them in but obviously numbers collapsed in the following “you must stay at home” months.

TfL had originally assessed the route would generate 265,000 trips per annum, that’s about 5,100 a week but despite Covid recovery route 497 is showing no signs of reaching that target. “Ordinarily it would be expected to take up to 18 months for those demand levels to be reached” TfL explain, but it’s been no ordinary 18 months since the route’s introduction of course.

Stagecoach have a five year contact to run route 497 until January 2025 but a break clause is available on 20 January 2023 subject to the operator being given 10 months’ notice (ie from March 2022). For TfL to meet that deadline a consultation on future options has to take place about now as nothing happens quickly in TfL Land.

Sure enough with perfect timing, last month TfL announced a consultation into route 497’s future which has two options: either put the two buses plying their lack of trade along the route daily between 05:40 and 00:18 (06:40 on Sundays) out of their misery and withdraw the route, or, you get the feeling, as a bit of a desperate bid to come up with a second option, liven up the one mile dead mileage between the Gooshays Drive terminal point and the actual terminus used by the buses at Dagnam Park Square so passengers can be carried.

Except there’s already a frequent double deck bus route – the 174 – which runs nine times an hour along that bit of route and continues along Hilldene Avenue also served by the 497. Two extra journeys on the new section from forlorn single deckers on a 497 desperate for passengers won’t make an iota of difference. Any extra trade for the 497 will simply come at the expense of the 174.

As if TfL are half serious about that second option, they’ve even come up with a detailed map to explain it.

It’s a strange state of affairs when TfL resolutely refuse to produce maps to promote bus routes they do run, but come up with a detailed map to explain where one might be withdrawn.

Here’s how TfL summarise the options:

To be fair there is a small benefit from option 1 in that it provides a new direct bus link for shippers living close to Dagnam Park Square wanting the Gallows Corner Tesco …. if they’re Tesco fans.

I took another ride up and down the route on Thursday to get a feel for how it’s doing.

Of the six random middle of the day journeys I either travelled on or observed: two journeys had one on board; three with two on board and one with four on board, although one of those four could have used alternative buses for the short ride along Hilldene Avenue.

Most popular point for boarding and alighting was the Gallows Corner Tesco.

Hopefully those passengers will spot the notice promoting the current consultation in a bus stop panel at that stop and let TfL know their views.

It’s noteworthy much of the route is on a hail and ride basis so most of the new roads being served are devoid of bus stops thereby not helping the route to establish itself in residents’ minds.

Although buses passing every half hour should make an impact and there is a high profile bus gate in the middle of the Kings Park development to prevent rat running motorists.

It’s interesting TfL haven’t offered other slimdown options to reduce operational costs while giving time for revenue to build, for example withdrawing the route evenings and Sundays or even reducing the frequency to hourly. I know such measures don’t play well with TfL’s desired standardisation of service levels but there are examples elsewhere of non daily, low frequency routes in the network only operating daytimes.

If TfL do pull the plug on the 497 in January 2023 by giving notice next March it’ll be the first time a complete route has been withdrawn without partial replacement since the demise of route RV1 on the South Bank as part of the first big Zone 1 service reductions in summer 2019. It’ll certainly be the first suburban route to be chopped completely and the first new route to fail to become established.

But these are uncertain times, and if you want a good example of the shortcomings of franchising look no further than the timescales surrounding route 497. Three years to introduce; 20 months operation with minimal passengers; 16 months to withdraw, or possibly not.

Franchising doesn’t do quick.

What ever happens TfL expects the London Borough of Havering (which acted as bankers for the developers’ £513,873 Section 106 payment) to hand over the balance still available to them.

Here’s the final paragraph in TfL’s report…

This sounds like wishful thinking. January 2023 will be three years worth of two buses running pretty much empty along a few streets in Havering for 36 minutes in every hour for eighteen and a half hours every day. I suspect that £513,873 will easily have been spent which for cash strapped TfL might explain why we’re seeing this consultation now.

It’s not been a great lesson in how to spend half a million pounds on public transport.

TfL’s consultation on the future of route 497 closes two weeks today so if you fancy expressing your views a link to the questionnaire is here, a summary explanation is here and a full report here.

Roger French

13 thoughts on “Are TfL about to ditch new route 497?

Add yours

  1. This route seems like an ideal candidate for some route branding. I know TfL doesn’t go in for it much but Uno’s 383 shows it can be done tastefully and effectively.


  2. You do wonder if this route and many others have suffered from the multiple delays to Crossrail – we saw many new routes introduced a couple of years ago to link the Crossrail stations to more areas, but now these routes are being judged before Crossrail has had a chance to influence passenger numbers.


  3. So TfL can reduce the number of buses on major routes in London (e.g. 6 buses on route 507, 14 on route 521) with very little notice, but to close down a little used service which only has 2 buses requires 14 months’ notice. When trying to manage public money, TfL is hardly fleet of foot.


  4. Without the benefit of an area bus map (!), it is hard to assess an alternative option, but surely, having taken Developers £cash, TfL needs to operate something? Any normal bus company would extend a route or alter existing patterns to cover, albeit at a reduced frequency if thought acceptable. But that would probably involve a projection of certain journeys on another route, thus ending the “sacred cow” mantra of “end-to-end” only workings. Quite why TfL still persist with this costly and wasteful method of scheduling buses this way is a mystery to most, but it certainly explains much of their financial difficulties.


  5. …and this “end-to-end” insistence is made even more ridiculous by the fact that actually on the road loads of turning short still actually goes on, due to bad traffic and/or driver manipulation, the latter of which TFL seems to do very little about, despite, one would assume, the evidence being there in plain sight via iBus!!


  6. I’m not sure what you mean by “driver manipulation”; I’m assuming that you mean that the driver decides not to complete mileage and thereby wreck the service.
    In practice . . . yes, of course that does happen; drivers are human and sometimes humans decide not to what they should do . . . but as a former London service controller, I can assure you that a driver regularly acting that way WILL be picked up by iBus controllers and dealt with.
    If a driver wants to run late to get a turn to try to finish early . . . the instruction to “go through for service requirements” will soon sort them out!!

    I quite agree that TfL’s insistence on end-to-end schedules doesn’t always provide the best service for the passenger . . . it is simply lazy planning by the planners. Part of the problem is that, without “touch-out”, actual passenger numbers on board at each stop cannot be calculated.
    Some “loading reporters” strategically placed towards the ends of the route will show whether A-B-C-D is actually needed, or whether A-B-C-D with B-C shorts would be better, or perhaps A-B-C and B-C-D might suit.
    In the olden days, that’s how service planning was done . . . we seem to have lost that “(black) art”.


  7. I have made several journeys on the 497 this year. On each occasion I have, for part of the journey, been the only passenger. Another negative is the fact that, at busy shopping times, northbound journeys can easily be held up by the queue of traffic leaving Tesco’s and waiting to exit on to the A12. The obvious solution would therefore seem to be to withdraw the service: could not Tfl come to some sort of agreement with Stagecoach to cease operations before January 2023?


  8. Buses in a straightjacket? To meet the needs of the cash machine. The wrong way round? , again. I’m just left wondering if it’s more common than we realise, and explains (quite) a few things in the good ‘ole UK.


  9. Stop running the route before the nominal end date? Always possible, but remember that Stagecoach will have based their tender price on expecting to use the new buses for the full 5 year period . . . thereby having a 5-year old bus for return to leasers or for sale. TfL specify exact buses for use on a contract . . . any cascade to replace older buses in a fleet isn’t always that simple.
    Other factors will also apply, not least that a contract is a contract, and early termination may attract a penalty to TfL . . . negotiation may see that penalty removed, but running it until 2023 would be the normal break-point anyway, so there is no early-exit penalty.

    TfL make much of the way that their contracts hold operators to specific performance targets, and that penalties will be applied if performance is poor . . . that cuts both ways; any changes to service specification mid-way through the contract will need to be paid for.

    It’s all quite different outside London . . . a Shire County will have a less-onerous contract performance regime; in return for which mid-contract changes can be made without penalty.


  10. You should do an article comparing Livingstone’s Fares Fare and its affect on LT, and Khan’s Fares Freeze and its implications for TfL. Will both organisations end up the same way, and suffer a similar fate from a vengeful Tory government ? From “Ken to Khan”. Or “Does Khan Ken it?”


  11. What I find depressing is the way Section 106 payments are used to provide a service that will never wash its face once support is removed.

    Time and again a comprehensive service is provided through empty estates which are withdrawn as passenger numbers start to pick up, leaving those who chose the bus stranded.


  12. @Greenline727
    If it is only possible to terminate a route at contract end, why is it apparently so easy to change the PVR during the course of the contract- e.g. witness all the recent service reductions in central London – surely these were not all at the end of their contracts? These reduced contracts would also have dedicated buses which, by your argument, would have to be returned to the lessor or sold. If there is some exception, can’t the PVR for the 497 be reuced by two?


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